TORONTO — Bob Myers just sat there; his eyes watering, his chest heaving. The seconds ticked by. He was at the interview table, in front of the media, cameras glaring at him, silence awaiting him. When he began to speak, no words came out. His voice just kept catching on emotion.
He was overwrought. He was overwhelmed. He didn’t know where to start or what to say.
Just moments before, the Golden State Warriors dynasty he’d assembled as general manager had just delivered one of its greatest comebacks and greatest victories. The team rallied from down six in this cauldron of Canadian red Monday night, pushing back on the waves of noise and intensity and Kawhi Leonard to steal Game 5, 106-105, and stave off elimination. Game 6, with the Toronto Raptors leading the series 3-2, is Thursday in Oakland.
It should’ve been a night of triumph, proof that Golden State was as much grit and guile as splash and flash. And yet Myers was just torn up, a face full of questions and regret and pain.
“Kevin,” he finally said, delivering the news like an ER doctor saying the patient hadn’t made it.
“It’s an Achilles injury.”
Kevin Durant had tried to play Monday, returning from a lower right leg injury that had sidelined him since Game 5 of the Western Conference semifinals. He tried to save the season, save the series, save the Golden State juggernaut that had won three of the past four NBA titles, but appeared unable to handle the relentless Raptors.
He played 11:57, scored 11 points and grabbed two rebounds. Then he fell to the floor, crumpled in a heap, grabbing the back of his right leg. He looked frustrated and furious and, well, defeated.
He eventually got dragged to his feet, draped his arms over Myers and Andre Iguodala and hobbled to the locker room. Steph Curry jogged behind them, even though he was still in the game. The Raptors crowd, which initially, and unfortunately, cheered the injury, began serenading Durant with “KD” chants and gave him a standing ovation. Soon enough, Durant was leaving the building on crutches.
He looked as broken emotionally as he was physically.
Now here was Myers delivering the news. This wasn’t a strained calf. This wasn’t just a flare-up. This was bad. This was really bad. Maybe a year lost if it’s a torn Achilles. Maybe the best player on the planet losing a season of his prime. Maybe, well, who knows how many maybes there are?
Sometimes players return from injuries like these. Sometimes they are never quite the same.
For Myers, though, this wasn’t just the loss of a chess piece. This was more. He signed Durant three years ago and has felt protective of his star ever since. The signing was assailed by NBA fans, who saw Durant trying to cut the championship line, joining a 73-win team that had just defeated his Oklahoma City Thunder and adding another jewel to a roster no one else in basketball could compete with.
No matter what Durant did, there was heat and hate. He won two Final MVPs, but it hardly mattered. There is no questioning his greatness on the court, but as free agency awaited this offseason, there remained a belief he still had something to prove and needed his own team, maybe the New York Knicks, to truly become an all-time great.
Durant, 30, is a sensitive guy. He’s prone to firing back on social media and barking at reporters. He allows the criticism of the few to overwhelm the cheers of the many.
Now he had shown his mettle by working to return, despite that looming free agency. Now he’d put it all on the line when his teammates needed him most. And now, well, now it had all just gotten so much worse.
“The initial injury was a calf injury,” Myers said. “This is not a calf injury.”
Did Durant come back too soon? The injury says yes, clearly, but that’s hard to predict. This is the balance of professional sports. Teams want their players to play, while players need to protect themselves.
The reason the NBA Finals is even in Canada is because Leonard spent a year battling with his old team, the San Antonio Spurs, about just how injured he was. Trust was lost. Hard feelings were born. He eventually got shipped to Toronto and turned the Raptors into true contenders.
That’s the business side of this, and Myers kept trying to talk it out, like he was processing it all, like he was trying to make it sound OK, mostly to himself.
“He was cleared to play tonight,” Myers said. “That was a collaborative decision. I don’t believe there is anybody to blame, but I understand this world. If you have to, you can blame me. I run our basketball operations department. … He went through four weeks with a medical team, and it was thorough and it was experts and multiple MRIs and multiple doctors, and we felt good about the process. … The people that worked with him and cleared him are good people, they’re good people.”
Maybe Myers deserves the blame or maybe he’s just trying to fall on the grenade or maybe he just feels so terrible about it all he’s bashing himself for everything.
Maybe it’s deeper than that even. Was Durant trying to prove himself to the critics who questioned why he wasn’t back as the Finals began slipping away, who asked about his toughness, who wondered about his commitment, who even dared to suggest he wasn’t as valuable to the Warriors as he thought?
“Those talking heads who say we’re better without him, that's just ludicrous,” Klay Thompson said. “Like that's crazy. This is the best player in the world.”
Toughness is not a new narrative for Durant. Growing up in Prince George County, Maryland, just outside Washington D.C., other kids would call him “cookie” because he’d supposedly crumble when hit. That’s just his nature. When he played youth football, he once apologized to another kid for tackling him too hard. During the NBA draft he was mocked for not being able to bench-press 185 pounds. It wasn’t for a lack of trying, it’s just that his long, thin, teenage frame was incapable of holding muscle.
So did he push himself back Monday night because of that? Did he return too soon because a lifetime of chatter made him eager to silence words he never should have cared about in the first place?
There’s no telling, but Bob Myers sure hinted at it and sure sounded like he wished he could have protected KD from that.
“He’s one of the most misunderstood people,” Myers said. “He’s a good teammate. He’s a good person. It’s not fair.”
Maybe that’s what had rocked Myers the most. The business ramifications of the injury are obvious. It may change everything in the NBA this offseason. Does someone still sign him to a max contract, even if he might be out for a season? Does this cause him to stay in Golden State, with a focus on 2020-21? Was he going to stay anyway?
For Myers, though, this was clearly personal. A good guy dealing with a bad break. A committed teammate getting punished for caring too much. Did Golden State do right by him? Did they protect him? Is this even fair to ask?
“Sports is,” Myers said, searching for words, “it’s people. Sports is people. I know Kevin takes a lot of hits sometimes, but he just wants to play basketball. And right now, he can’t. Basketball has gotten him through his life. … I don’t know that we can all understand how much it means to him. He just wants to play basketball with his teammates and compete.”
This is really what he had always wanted, a brotherhood to believe in. It’s what drew him to Golden State, an all-for-one mentality that didn’t care about box scores or All-Star votes, just championships. Durant had lived his basketball life as a modern mercenary, three high schools, two AAU teams, a one-and-done in college. Everything was about getting to the NBA. Once he got there, he wanted the stability of the team that he never had.
Now here it all came out. He’d risked his future for his guys and then they managed to block out the emotion of losing him to get this series back to California. They put together an all-time great win. They escaped Toronto to fight another day.
Yet it all felt so empty.
“I just told the team, I didn't know what to say,” coach Steve Kerr said. “On one hand, I’m so proud of them.
“On the other, I’m just devastated for Kevin.”
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